Abstract: Educational Challenges and Promising Practices for Unaccompanied Immigrant Students in US Schools (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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Educational Challenges and Promising Practices for Unaccompanied Immigrant Students in US Schools

Wednesday, January 20, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Kerri Evans, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Maryland Baltimore County, Baltimore, MD
Thomas M. Crea, PhD, Associate Professor & Assistant Dean of Global Programs, Boston College, MA
Sarah Elizabeth Neville, MA, PhD Student, Boston College, Boston, MA
Gabrielle Oliveira, PhD, Assistant Professor, Boston College, MA
Background: Unaccompanied immigrant children (UC) from the Northern Triangle of Central America attend schools all over the US. While there is substantial literature on academic achievement and English language skills of immigrant students, less focuses specifically on UC students, and even less on their social and emotional well-being. Social and emotional learning is critical for children to develop skills and knowledge and be successful in college and the workforce. Most research on the effectiveness of programs that support students who struggle academically, emotionally, and behaviorally focuses on US-born students, not immigrants.

Methods: We analyzed data from 22 focus groups/interviews across two communities- one in Northeast/Midwest. 79 service providers that work with UC were interviewed, including foster care staff, community partners in legal and medical clinics, school staff, and foster parents. We used a multistep process to qualitative inquiry: immersion in the data, initial inductive open coding (Glaser & Strauss, 1967), collective second cycle coding and codebook development (Maxwell, 2013; Saldaña, 2015), deductive coding (Creswell, 2013), assessment of interrater reliability at 80+% (Creswell, 2013; Miles & Huberman, 1994), and an external audit meeting to discuss preliminary findings with service providers (Morse, 2015).

Results: Our results show that challenges exist in terms of school capacity, cultural differences, students’ language abilities and school preparedness, and their health and mental health. When discussing the capacity of the school to serve UC, a foster parent said “schools are hindered with how much they can do” given limited resources. A supervisor elaborated, “we’re seeing our graduation rates increase, but we’re questioning whether they’re getting the education they deserve” explaining that there is a struggle without enough information to really understand the student at arrival to school. A teacher described the cultural differences in expectations by saying, “kids don’t know what it means to be in school. The expectations in different countries are not the same, [and this] affects behavior and study skills” and another agreed that they cannot “assume that kids know what the rules are.”

Results show support for academics, language, service coordination, emotional and behavioral strategies. For example, in order to build a school that is emotionally responsive to the mental health needs of UC students, a teacher explained that it starts with the basics by saying “they need a good program educationally. [But] they certainly need a secure and safe spot to be. We become counselors... because they need so much.”

Implications: Results suggest school social workers need to build partnerships with bilingual mental health supports and conduct self-assessments to evaluate whether the school is meeting the needs of UC students. Future research should focus on the long-term social and emotional well-being of UC students, using standardized measures or working to standardize measures for this population, and including the voices of youth themselves. Implications for school administrators and policy makers include the use of more welcoming policies. Additionally, results suggest that school districts should consider the implications of grade placement, and create guidelines, while recognizing that sometimes the best placement will be individualized.